The End of the Affair (1999)

D: Neil Jordan
S: Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea

Powerful, thought-provoking adaptation of Graham Greene's intensely personal novel from writer/director Neil Jordan. Beautifully judged performances from the three leads, subtle, intelligent scripting (which makes excellent use of the novel but is not constrained by the demands of verbal narrative), unobtrusive but stylish direction, and an overall coherence and sense of purpose erases the stain of In Dreams and makes this among the best films of the director's career. The story concerns an adulterous affair between a deliberately amoral writer (Ralph Fiennes) and the wife (Julianne Moore) of a civil servant neighbour whose obedience to routine and sense of habit has blinded him to her needs (Stephen Rea). As the Second World War rages around them, the lovers reach a crisis which has more to do with fate and circumstance than human emotion. This provokes a powerful confrontation with notions of religious faith which exceed mere morality, and plunges the central character into writing "a diary of hate" which rationalises his conflicts with God.

The film opens in 1946, some years after the story of the affair begins (and ends). Jordan uses a flash-back/flash-forward structure to allow a sense of the different perspectives of the two principal characters to emerge. Anchored around a crucial moment which signals 'the end of the affair' (the explosion of a bomb near the lovers' bedroom), the film spins off on two narrative bearings which eventually merge to provide it with a difficult and emotionally wrenching final movement where Fiennes begins to realise just how powerful the forces ranked against him really are and just how impotent he is in the face of them. The film is summed up by the final lines written by the nominally atheistic character to the God that he realises he hates, beginning "You used my hatred to gain my acknowledgement." This encapsulates many of the complex, paradoxical ideas Greene and Jordan explore. It is as much concerned with the presence and effects of religion in people's lives as any conventional notions of impropriety or morality, and the film brilliantly uses the bitter ironies of Greene's dialogue to expose and undercut the hypocrisies of the stiff-upper lip characters and the forms in which they are usually represented. It is as much an assault upon the world of restrained romance as it is a story of characters at odds with society (and with God), and despite the trappings of romantic drama, it is a bitter, hard-edged (almost savage) testament to the English (and human) capacity for self-delusion (the explicitness of the sex scenes should also provide a jolt to the box-of-hankies-and-warm-mug-of-tea brigade).

In contrast to the Oscar-laden romantic epicThe English Patient (which also starred Fiennes and had a similar adulterous triangle at its centre), this film interweaves its text and sub-texts with delicate ease. Viewers are drawn both into the mechanics of the affair (which Jordan conceives of in terms of fragmentary moments and memories evoked in context rather than a simple "once upon a time" reminiscences), and find the darker themes gradually beginning to emerge. On the surface, the dialogue seems as stilted and clichéd as the most hackneyed Mills & Boon, but, with well-judged cutting and intricate performances which match Greene's prose, Jordan and his cast constantly remind audiences of the density and depth of feeling and the hidden meanings which words sometimes mask (or betray). The narrative key to understanding this approach is in the Mr. Arkadin-like plot device which has Fiennes hire a private detective (James Bolam, who sends Ian Hart on the case) to investigate himself, following the potential renewal of affections between himself and Moore after the opening encounter between Fiennes and Rea where Rea explains he suspects Moore of having an affair (don't worry, it all makes sense on screen). The story also takes many unexpected directions, pre-empting expectation by having characters face their feelings more quickly than narrative convention usually allows, and then forcing them to deal with the results. Jordan flourishes with this kind of pace, and for once he has found a way to match form to content and given the story just enough time to develop before presenting the next piece of the thematic puzzle.

The End of the Affair is a beautifully crafted film, photographed with almost expressionistic intensity by Roger Pratt (the rain-soaked streets of post-war London seem like something out of a Ridley or Tony Scott film at times), edited with respect for the actors' interpretation of dialogue by Tony Lawson, nicely decked-out by production designer Anthony Pratt and costume designer Sandy Powell, and scored by Michael Nyman. Jordan clearly emerges as a controlling presence however, as the film wends an inevitable path to thematic resolution with a clarity, coherence, and directness so sorely absent in In Dreams. Fiennes, Moore, and Rea are all excellent, backed by a lovely turn from Ian Hart as the unassuming gumshoe assigned to follow their exploits. Fiennes captures the anger and arrogance of his character very well. He makes a suitably complex leading man, evoking contradictory emotions and levels of empathy from the audience as the plot unfolds. The viewer makes the journey with him, and though a great deal of the narrative turns on Moore, it is Fiennes' central struggle with the power of God which fuels the all-consuming vitriol. Moore, for her part, is much more than the usual fickle leading lady such films often offer. Though she becomes something of a cypher for the damage inflicted on the human spirit by a crisis of faith, she registers a sympathetic portrait of desperation, fear, and inner conflict. Rea struggles with his English accent, but his face betrays the pain of masculine torment, a passive, internalised reaction to the kind of ferocious amorality demonstrated by Fiennes' character.

This is Jordan's most successful exploration of the theme of religion which has been a feature of so many of his films in one form or another. Using the lynchpin of Greene's own tortured relationship with his faith, Jordan has found an effective platform from which to examine the true meaning of belief beyond considerations of dogma. Though a priest played by Jason Isaacs features prominently in the story, the film is less an indictment of the particulars of Catholicism (a feature of so many end of millennium films including Dogma, The End of Days, and Stigmata) than the kind of socio-psychological superstructure established by a strong ordering system which is accepted or endorsed by a person in the face of either their own feelings or their sense of rationality. Though the outburst of irrationality is here nominally centred on the female character, it is how the narrator eventually arrives at his own conclusions which provides the film with its heartwrenching resolution (where the character, having acknowledged the existence of God, demands to be left alone). In this religion is dealt with both as a theme in and of itself and used, like any of Jordan's ordering systems, to demonstrate the sense of entrapment which frustrates his characters' ability to negotiate their own moral, social, physical, and psychological space.

Though a difficult and demanding film, The End of the Affair is a very rewarding variant on familiar material. It is certainly a far better film than The English Patient, though perhaps its intellectual complexity might made it too rarefied for casual viewers. It is certainly well worth seeing, and after the disappointments of Agnes Browne and Ordinary Decent Criminal, should come as a relief to Irish audiences. Highly recommended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.